(Corrects paragraph 10 to say that ambassador is from Iran, not
* Iran says fuel unloading at Bushehr no reason for concern
* But Western diplomats want more information
* They say move raises potential safety questions
* No "acute" nuclear proliferation risk - expert
By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA, Nov 20 Western officials voiced concern
on Tuesday about what they described as an unexpected unloading
of fuel at Iran's first nuclear energy plant and said Tehran,
which has dismissed it as a normal step, must clarify the issue.
The U.N. nuclear agency said in a confidential report on
Friday that fuel assemblies were transferred last month from the
reactor core of the Russian-built Bushehr plant to a spent fuel
pond, but it gave no reason for the move.
The 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant - whose start-up has been
delayed for years - is a symbol of what Iran calls its peaceful
nuclear ambitions, disputed by the West, and any new hitch would
probably be seen as an embarrassment both for Tehran and Moscow.
"This is not a routine matter or something that's quite
ordinary," a senior Western official who declined to be
identified said. "So this is of great concern. We need answers."
Another Western diplomat in Vienna, where the U.N.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based, said he did
not know what had happened at Bushehr but that the fuel
development raised possible safety-related questions.
"It sounds a safety bell and then it potentially sounds a
safeguards bell if it is used in a weird way," the diplomat
said, referring to the fact that plutonium usable for nuclear
bombs could in theory be extracted from spent fuel.
The removal of the fuel came some two months after Russian
state nuclear corporation Rosatom said the long-postponed plant
on Iran's Gulf coast was operating at full capacity.
It was plugged into Iran's national grid in September 2011,
a move intended to end protracted delays in its construction.
Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said the
fuel transfer was part of a "normal technical procedure" linked
to transferring responsibility for the plant to Iranian from
Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Reza Sajjadi, said there was no
reason for concern: "Before the handover of the station to
Iranian specialists, the inspection work needs to be completed
... Nothing unforeseen is happening there."
But a senior diplomat familiar with Bushehr said last week
about the fuel transfer: "It was certainly not foreseen, that's
NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION RISK?
Iran is the only country with an operating nuclear power
plant that is not part of the 75-nation Convention on Nuclear
Safety (CNS), which was negotiated after the 1986 nuclear
disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Early last year, Iran said it was having to remove fuel for
tests. A source close to the matter then said it was done due to
concern that metal particles from nearly 30-year-old equipment
used in the reactor's construction had contaminated the fuel.
Russian builder NIAEP - part of Rosatom - was in October
quoted as saying Bushehr would be formally "handed over for use"
to Iran in March 2013, whereas earlier officials had said that
would happen by the end of this year.
Iran, a major oil producer, says electricity generation is
the main purpose of its nuclear activity but its adversaries say
Tehran's underlying goal is the ability to make atom bombs.
Bushehr is not considered a major proliferation risk by
Western powers, whose concern is focused on sites where Iran
enriches uranium, which can have civilian and military purposes.
Its construction was started by Germany's Siemens before the
1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah, and
it was taken over by Russian engineers in the 1990s.
Nuclear expert Greg Thielmann said Bushehr did not pose an
"acute" proliferation threat as Iran was required to return any
spent fuel to the Russian supplier and it did not have a
reprocessing plant needed to separate out the plutonium.
But spent fuel from Iranian reactors poses "a long-term
proliferation concern, because they would provide material from
which fissile material could be derived", said Thielmann, of the
Washington-based Arms Control Association.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Editing by